Wednesday, October 29, 2014

One Man's Fancy

For most of your junior high school and high school careers, you were busy trying on attitudes as though they were suits in a two-for-the price-of-one sale.  Many of these attitudes went out of style before your eyes, while others fit you with the same whimsicality as the suits in two-for-one sales.  Still others of these attitudes became clear examples of wrong fit.

True enough, you came out of high school a different person than when you entered, but that didn't in any way mean you'd found a proper fit.  From this position of retrospect, you see the possibility--to continue the analogy--of having to consult a tailor however you emerged from high school.  

However you attitudes were at that time, those aspects of you have evolved to your present state, where you note similar difficulties finding a proper fit with contemporary attitudes.You may have changed, but the change was in type.  You may be more complex now than you were, but there is no running away from the you who was, any more than you will be able to run from the present state of you at a time in the future.

One certainty prevails:  you are a happier person now than you were then, in considerable measure because you have, by some design, some chance, and outward guidance, worked repairs and innovations in appropriate attitudes.

The repair of this particular observation was your association and subsequent friendship with a book first presented to you in high school, a book you were at considerable pains to avoid.  After these years away from high school, you have different approaches to avoiding things.  Your excuses and what passed for logic required a more complicated bill of accusation than your avoidance mechanisms of today.

The book in question is My Antonia by Willa Cather; it will be placed in the list of one hundred novels you believe you had to have read in order to have any hope of success at the career of your choice.  Your major excuse for not having read it is an embarrassment made all the more profound by your rereading of it, recognizing techniques and qualities you missed during your first batch of enthusiastic reading, then discovering narrative tools you are still at pains to master.

At the time My Antonia first came your way, you were dismissive because it was a girl's book.  When you went into publishing, you learned how important this aspect was.  Girls' books sold more than those written for boys.  And there was this matter:  often boys' books were bought by mothers, sisters, aunts, and grannies for their male relatives.  

Best find ways to get used to it, one way of which is to read and edit girls' books.  There were two or three times in your career as a writer where you had to be a girl writer, or so you thought, for the same reason you were led to believe a writer of fiction with the name of Lowenkopf would not be taken with seriousness because, in fact, many novels of the Western category are so lacking in humor.

Published a bit short of a hundred years ago, My Antonia has a narrative voice that amazed you with its sense of freshness from other books written in that era, meaning in the most positive and distinct terms how the authorial presence was maneuvered in such a way that it struck you as nonexistent.  Cather is playing the part of herself, a Nebraska-raised youngster whose abilities and education took her east to New York

The Cather of My Antonia was a product of the Prairie, loving it and proud of her roots there, but aware how integral New York was to her career and life style.  With a bold move, she created another Prairie-based individual to be her spokesperson, someone who also had made a life for himself in the East, who had in fact married for position and wealth.  This last stroke speaks to some of Cather's storytelling genius.  Jimmy, her narrator, in one stroke will be seen as the one longing for the eponymous Antonia instead of his wife.

The "my" of the title carries the double entendre of romantic connection, although its actual intent was that each of the two former Nebraskans, Cather and her made up Jimmy, were to write a document about Antonia.  Cather confesses she'd scarcely addressed the note-taking stages of the project.  Jimmy, on the other hand, has rushed to complete his reminiscence, of Antonia.  When he delivers his version to Cather, he says, "Here is my Antonia."

First time through, you were aware of something Jimmy was perhaps not aware of--his respect, admiration, and perhaps unspoken love for Antonia, an ethnic transplant to the small farm community from which she, Jimmy, and Cather emerged.  Antonia is in effect the embodiment of The Prairie and, if you wish, of the resilient, working class American woman.

Second time through, even though you knew the ending was set in stone, you were rooting for your own ending, even while recognizing its phony sentimentality.  You wanted Jimmy to be with Antonia because you wished to be.

Small wonder then that you want this novel on your list, happy to have overcome the things within you that caused you to keep the work at arm's length for another twenty years.  You listen to yourself while presenting the book in class, pointing out passages,asking the students what they think a particular event or response means.

Antonia is a remarkable character, all the more so because she hasn't the faintest ideas she's being eavesdropped on.  You would never have supposed yourself to become so involved with her to the point where, Jimmy's Antonia she may be, but she is yours as well.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Visit with an Old Friend

 A visit with an old friend can be a precarious thing, reminding you how much one or both of you has grown. This prospect is daunting enough without the added possibility of it reminding you of the distance you've grown from one another.

In certain cases, trial runs, as the matter were, you are both at the age and temperament you'd reached when you last met.  This has negative and positive aspects, the negative ones being some vivid memories of your then behavior, the positive aspects residing in the possibility that you have moved farther along the road of becoming some approximation of what you'd hoped,

There are speculative visits, where you wonder how a meeting would go with an old pal from high school or university days, fraught with potential cringe moments when you recall the essential ingredients of the then chemistry between you, certain you have outgrown, bypassed that aspect of your essential nature while at the same time recalling other individuals from your past, relatives, teachers, employers, work mates, who have left you with variations on the theme of a leopard not being able to change its spots.

You find yourself thinking in terms of fifty-fifty propositions.  You may have changed some spots, but the others are still there, waiting for the whistle or command that will bring them forth again, and you will be you, filled with the fifteen- or sixteen-year-old you.

Most poignant among these visits are the ones with those closest ones with whom you are separated by the boundary of life, which you continue to enjoy, and death, which they insist on keeping.  Many of these memories remind you of the fragile nature of humor, how an event or incident or some coded language can bring you gales of fond memory.  Yet, when your laughter or posture of amusement is questioned and you supply explanations, you're met with the dull-eyed looks of incomprehension, followed by an uneasy attempt at retrieving a lost pace.

There is nothing overtly funny, for instance, about ordering liver and onions for lunch at a posh mid-Manhattan restaurant, even in context with one of the diners being a committed vegan as well as being obnoxious.  There is nothing of essential humor in the fact of you being banished from a cemetery, your offense the consumption of a super deluxe torpedo sandwich from the Italian Deli on De la Guerra Street, much less is there any humor in the fact of complaining to a busboy in Spanish and with gestures, that someone has stolen your watermelon.  Yet, all these incidents have ties to associations related to gales of appreciative laughter.

And what if the old friend is a book, long left to wait, as many friendships do, for a considerable span of time?  Is there a commonality of language and interest?  Even more interesting, is there chemistry, and if so, what kind?

Often heard at impromptu or more formal reunions, "Do you remember me? or, "You may not remember me--"Sometimes, in the first eight or ten pages of reunion with an old friend book, such statements come to mind.  When they do, you set the book aside with nervous deliberation, aware you've grown apart, but not quite sure why or how.  Really?  We were friends?

There are a number of old friends with whom there is a chemistry still to be cherished.  You've had the opportunity in recent years to teach the book, watch a diverse group of readers set forth thinking, as you once did, one thing in particular, then coming to a place you're pleased to be able to appreciate.

"This is," you once thought of your friend, "a wonderful book for a boy.  It could not be better in terms of suspense, bewilderment, adventure, and grand surprises."  The book of which you speak is Huckleberry Finn.  Although it is some of those things you once thought of it, Huckleberry Finn, wonderful though it may be, could in fact be better.  Adults do in fact ignore it at their peril, more often than not because it is presented as a boy's book, an "adventure," or a first look at a significant American voice.

Huckleberry Finn does embody some of those tags, yet under the surface of them, it rips into an America every bit as conflicted and tortured as William Styron's Sophie's Choice, forging a new narrative vision, a quintessential American voice in the process of addressing an agonizing racial conflict.

From its opening lines until the introduction of Tom Sawyer toward the final quarter of the novel, and then returning to those elegiac final lines you believe F.Scott Fitzgerald was trying, in his way to emulate, Huck Finn carries its own weight as a story, pushes narrative voice to an undreamed of plateau, evokes a magnificent river in full parade, and takes on significant moral issues.

What possible must-read list could you compile without mentioning Huck Finn?  What other book promised you and delivered on the promise a lifetime of discovery?  

Monday, October 27, 2014

Flipping the Bird

For the longest time, you were content with your conviction that the mystery novel is the role model for all longform fiction.  Even though romance fiction outsells the mystery novel, your logic has it that the mystery is first and foremost a dramatic way of  identifying an individual who has in effect settled a difference of opinion in defiance of much civil law and certainly of one of the Ten Commandments.  

Thus it is a short jump from identifying a perpetrator from a group of plausible suspects in a mystery to identifying a prime partner from a group of likely potentials in a romance.

This logic brooked no nonsense for you, which is a fine thing for a logic to do, standing up to challenge that way.  But you've also come to believe that all logic is, eventually, subject to assault.  

Your own assault came when you first read Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, which is another novel you think to add to your list of one hundred novels a writer who wishes to write a novel must read.  At some date in the near future, you will add The Golden Compass to your list of the hundred novels, even though you must admit you had written several novels before reading The Golden Compass but none since.

You can also say you've discussed this project with a few individuals so far who have written a good deal of fiction.  While all of them agree about the need to read quantities of novels, some find your number a bit too stingy, one even going so far as to suggest you picked a hundred because it "sounds so convenient and is not the slightest bit daunting."  This individual has written and published several novels.  This individual favors the notion of a novelist feeling daunted before taking on a novel.  "There is something about being daunted that brings out the best in a writer."

The Golden Compass is a part of a trilogy, which you rushed to complete because, among other things, you'd been led by it to change your mind about the mystery, standing alone at the top of a triangle, which may turn out to be for your purposes the wrong geometric form to use as a metric.   The Golden Compass falls into the genre of AU, or alternating universe, one that exists at the same time as our contemporary Reality, but which has specific differences from this one as well as having somewhere a portal through which the unwary and the initiated can move back and forth, under certain conditions.

In the same spirit that all novels are essential mysteries, they may be argued, as you do here, to be alternate universes because their setting is the author's version of the locale, not the actual Baltimore or Los Angeles or London or San Francisco of mysteries.  Even Ed McBain's glorious Eighty-seventh Precinct police procedurals are set in a fictional borough most readers will think of as being Manhattan in disguise. Was his choice to do so deliberate or accidental?

When you asked Ken Millar, AKA Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton why they called their locale Santa Rita when it was palpably Santa Barbara, both squirmed with the excuse that calling their Santa Rita by its true name would shut down certain sources of information which were presented to them.

You have visited many of the San Francisco haunts of Dashiell Hammett, the Los Angeles venues of Raymond Chandler and Harry Bosch,only to discover the truth as it works for you.  In that truth, Los Angeles and Santa Monica will never turn up Philip Marlowe or Bosch, any more than San Francisco will produce Sam Spade or the Continental Op.  You have to read the books, which supply the portal, the same portal Alice discovered when she fell into Wonderland.

Any approach to art, even something as direct and obvious as a photograph or a rendering of exquisite detail, is an alternate universe vision of the subject because the artist has controlled light, perspective, and focus.  Yes, art can be spoken of as managed reality.  But it is not a mountain goat leap of logic to say art is afflicted or arranged or idealized or demonized reality, each quality representing the artist's vision as the work was being executed.

The consequence of such previous logic is the illogical decision to hold off for a time on listing The Golden Compass as a book a writer must read before embarking on the novel-writing journey until you reach that passionate state of certainty where you will be able to say so with conviction.

You have no such qualms about adding to your list Hammett's The Maltese Falcon which you'd wish the neo-novelist to read for, among other things, its ending, which speaks to illusion and delusion.  Not to forget the quality resident in many humans wherein they love a good, old fashioned legend.  Never mind that the legend is an adroit manipulation of actual history and invented facts or relationships.

The Falcon brings a tangy mixture of cynicism, hidden agenda, betrayal, and self-interest to the page, leavened by Hammett's mischievous attempts to prank censorious sorts who were attempting to preserve a sense of decorum languages could never contain.  We have Chaucer to thank for a good deal of that, but we have Hammett in the game as well.  Who got the word "gunsel" past the censors?  What did that word actually mean as opposed to what the censors thought it might have meant.  And what about Same Spade asking Wilmer Cook, "How long you been off the gooseberry lay, son?"  And why did the censors take it out, thinking God only knows what it may have meant?

Yep, The Falcon stays.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Means, Motive, and Opportunity

If you were to give consideration to a book based on the hundred novels you believe a writer should read, two conditions must be met.  The first one seems obvious enough.  You shall have read each of the hundred novels you use as a basis for your examples and commentary.  And the work in most cases shall have been in print for at least fifty years, giving it the time to earn out in terms not so much of finances as from stature.

You're leaving some weasel room for a few writers still much alive and producing.  Writers such as Louise Erdrich, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, Denis Johnson, Joyce Carol Oates, and even though he says he's finished, nevertheless, Philip Roth.

One hundred novels a wannabe writer should have read, reread, learned from in terms of overall awareness, but also for the specifics you got from each of them.  Might be worthwhile to start a notebook in which you listed them, if only to see how well they stand up to your scrutiny.

Not sure of how to organize yet; perhaps having the provisional one hundred, then engaging the cross-talk and vetting process will provide an answer.

The first choice to come to mind is a solid one, Wilkie Collins's 1868 mystery, The Moonstone.  Significant among your reasons for choosing it, the narrative format, which is multiple point of view, not only providing a rich array of characters and introducing one of the earliest of detective investigators, Sgt. Cuff, but as well introducing another mystery staple, the gifted amateur, Franklin Blake.

Class was a matter of particular concern during the nineteenth century in England.  Sgt. Cuff had to approach the ingenue  victim, Rachel Verinder, with deference and tact, he being from the working classes and she his social superior. Indeed, Sgt. Cuff seems to have got precious little information from Rachel.  Even those interviews give the reader more social information than clue-related, crime-solving fact.

In significant contrast, Sgt. Cuff gets vital information from the butler, Gabriel Betteridge, and Franklin Blake justifies his narrative presence by his observations of the Verinder family and its background, as well as a stunning, surprise dramatic revelation of the sort that could well have provided inspiration for the contemporary crime novelist, Gillian Flynn, in her 2012 Gone Girl.

Every bit as prolific as his friend and publisher, Charles Dickens, Collins often comes out ahead in the assessment of which writer, he, or Dickens, had the better sense of humor.  Collins's portrait of Miss Clack, a poor relative of Rachel and her mother, Lady Verinder, gives us a dual vision of the nineteenth century version of a poor relative and a religious extremist, who cannot restrain herself from slipping biblical tracts under the doors of the various guests at the Verinder estate.

This is certainly a novel you'd want a beginning or intermediate mystery writer to consult for structure, characters, pacing, and its obvious influence on the mystery genre as it came bouncing along the bumpy country roads of the nineteenth century and into the urban sprawls of the big city in the twentieth century.

In your research for presenting this novel first to an adult class then to a group of undergrads, you became aware that a university scholar became interested in The Moonstone to the point of stopping her excellent translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy, in order to create her own version of the gifted amateur, Franklin Blake.  Thus did Dorothy Sayers introduce another amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Whimsey.

The Moonstone brings background and information about opium use and addiction, about India, about hypnotism, and about police procedure before the wave of interest in detective fiction began.  It in fact was one of the reasons why there was a wave of interest, one that intrigued Charles Dickens enough to try his own hand at the medium. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Literary Equivalent of an Uber Driver

Perhaps your thoughts about actors today come from trying to get an unruly chapter in your work in progress to mind.  Perhaps it was because of a discussion with a friend who has sometimes acted but is now more of a dramaturge and writer.  

Another perhaps came during a phone conversation with a friend who lives in Hollywood and who claims her apartment building has a heavy population of actors.  These potentials remind you of the sentiment voiced by the friend from Hollywood in so many words, "Actors are well beyond normal."

In a recent conversation with your literary agent, who at one time ran the editorial department of a publisher in New York and another in Boston, you paid close attention to the sentiment that beginning writers are only starting on the learning curve of craziness.  You recall your father, who was not a writer, asking you at one point in your early twenties if you were crazy enough to be a writer.  O tempore, o mores.  (Not to be confused with O tempura, O morays.)

At the time of being asked, you were convinced you were crazy enough.  In retrospect you see you were not so much crazy as naive and/or rebellious.  Those are in fact wonderful qualities for a writer to have at any stage, thus this revelation of you being at the rat tail of the learning curve.  You had a long way to go to get to the point at which you now reside.  You are willing to face the fact that you are not crazy enough to be of any account, which leaves you hovering near being no account.

Since you've hung out with a number of musicians, you have some ability to recognize craziness in that demographic, one slight example being a local musician who for the longest time showed up at informal jam sessions with a didgeridoo, a true enough instrument, requiring physical and musical acumen, but nevertheless one not readily associated with improv groups in this part of the world.

You've had enough association with fine artists to have recognized a quirk when you saw it, including a woman who had several sketchbooks devoted to her studies of insects.  This of itself is not a quirkiness, but, you argue, wishing to add at least one insect to any oil or watercolor before she could consider it complete does qualify.  There was a trompe l'oeilist you met briefly who assured you he concealed a dead mouse in each of his trompes l'oeille.  He showed you one.

You at one time knew a house painter who may have been pulling your leg when he spoke of regarding each of his works as though it were a Navajo rug, which meant that it had to have some imperfection built into it because a Navajo rug is a copy of a sand painting, which must be perfect, and must be destroyed after being drawn.This house painter was nowhere near being a Native American, thus the rug construct qualifies as a creditable quirk.  If, that is, he were not pulling your leg.

Taking a leg pull seriously forms an important part of this essay. You're only aware of the times you suspected or caught on.  Beyond your skepticism is a naivete as thick as the marine layer in residence off the Central Coast during June and July, meaning you've no way of knowing when you believed something to be true that was or is not.

However grand the temptation to include copyeditors in your list, because they do have some remarkable traits, these are not official quirks, only extremes of tidiness,  The facts speak to you, penetrating the bubble of your own quirkiness.  These individuals all have an ability you strive for and are willing to spend hours in daily practice attempting to achieve.  

The ability is the ability to transport the reader/viewer away from the present moment and position, into another time frame and location.  You may call the locale Los Angeles or Santa Barbara or Cincinnati, but it is not that place, only a simulacrum you have created as a part of a leg pull in which things actual and suggested happen in this faux locale but did not happen in the real one, except that the leg pull might have happened among real persons, who are crazy in their own way for living in such places as Los Angeles or Santa Barbara, or Cincinnati, but not crazy enough to be characters in stories.

You are the literary equivalent of an Uber driver, picking up and delivering total strangers to destinations, with money exchanging hands through electronic media that, a few years back, would have been considered a leg pull.  In the sense that a reader wants to go to a puzzle or romance or history, you deliver the passenger to the destination, but the route you've chosen is pure invention and exaggeration.  

At one point when you worked for a massmarket publisher, you had statistics for a certain title you wished to contract that argued for a sale in the hundreds of thousands.  You were promptly reminded, "You are in massmarket now, Lowenkopf.  You were brought here because you had books that sold millions. Hundreds of thousands is not massmarket."

Well, it certainly is, but you still smart at the recollection.  Massmarket has come to mean ordinary to you.  You are not massmarket.  You are nuts.  You are a writer nuts and crazy.  You do not appeal to massmarket.  In some ways, you can still hear Jake asking if you are crazy enough.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Power Plays

Among the many ways power may be seen and experienced, consider latent energy brought into play to effect some kind of work.  In order top do so, the energy has to be transformed from latent to active and direct.  Thus power becomes a force being exerted to accomplish a desired result.  Or effect.

In the dramatic sense, power is a considerable mass of influence used by one individual to direct another.  Power is also the potential for influence over a group by another group, an organization over un- or dis-organized individuals.

Some power is measured in terms of theoretical horses, the effect of one horse doing X amount of work within a specific span of time.  When you were first introduced to the subject of physics, you recall taking pleasure in being able to understand how power related to specific acts, the amount of energy required to lift or move or push an object of X weight over a distance of Y in Z amount of time.

When you were exposed to the subjects of drama, psychology, motivation, conscience, and ethics, you were thrilled to realize how something as insignificant on its face as a nod or lift of an eyebrow could induce character X to do Y.  

This became more fascinating yet when you realized you'd been nudged, urged, threatened, wheedled, coaxed, and driven by conscience to do certain things, not do certain others, and to lie about things you did or did not do.  You were on to something.  You knew it had to do with power.

Somewhere along the way, you began to observe how implied and expressed power drove story, in effect caused story to do X amount of work on characters Y and Z within the framework of an act or a chapter or an entire short story or an even longer narrative such as a novella or a novel.

A scene may well begin with Character A having some degree of power over Character B, which proves useful in Character A ordering Character B to do something with the reasonable expectation that Character B will comply.  Watching such activity as a reader or audience, you find yourself growing uncomfortable on behalf of Character B for the plight in which Character B appears trapped.  You also dislike Character A for bullying, for undue use of power or influence.  If this circumstance is orchestrated well by the author, you begin in time to resent Character B for not taking a stand.

By happenstance, plan, or pure guile, Character B discovers a way to bring Character A's influence to an abrupt end.  We delight in seeing the realization come over Character A; what was once power is now trivial.  What once produced results and the atmosphere of subservience is gone.  This change of power is a major factor in certain types of humor, where the dramatic effect is reached when Character A can no longer gain the bully's advantage and now topples before our eyes.

Parity does not keep story going for long, unless, before our eyes, we see collusion and conspiracy to impose levels of power.  How quickly the shift of parity and a comfortable system of power shifts in the opening moments of Macbeth.  How quickly Shakespeare dramatizes a shift in power between he who was once Prince Hal and Prince Hal's mate of the carouse and roister, Sir John Falstaff.  What a complete, utter shift of power:


    My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!


    I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
    How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
    I have long dream'd of such a kind of man,
    So surfeit-swell'd, so old and so profane;
    But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
    Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
    Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
    For thee thrice wider than for other men.
    Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
    Presume not that I am the thing I was;
    For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
    That I have turn'd away my former self;
    So will I those that kept me company.
    When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
    Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
    The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
    Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
    As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
    Not to come near our person by ten mile.
    For competence of life I will allow you,
    That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
    And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
    We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
    Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
    To see perform'd the tenor of our word. Set on.

Even after so stern a reprimand, Falstaff tries to maintain the fiction of the past, but the damage is done.

The physics of drama and story were there all along, requesting your indulgence.  Power is action, not mere discussion of it.  Power is the ghost of the king, directing his son, Hamlet, to avenge his death.  Power is Hamlet agreeing to do so.

All these years, there before you, waiting to be heeded.  You tried to listen.  You wished to listen.  But you were as distracted as Odysseus' sailors when they heard the singing of the Sirens.  You heard attitude, tone, description; you allowed yourself to intervene as the writers of past centuries did in the good faith of following the conventions of their times, where the author could, with the wave of a hand, bring the story crashing to a halt for a paragraph or two of brilliant writing.  Hello Aldous Huxley.  Hello, Thomas Hardy.  Hello, George Eliot.

You were in with the best of company, but you were dazzled by their brightness and the conventions of their day.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


You shouldn't be doing this, but here it is.  The "this" you shouldn't be doing is in effect showing favoritism, allowing someone in a line that is by its real nature, growing long and impatient.  You reach "this" point with some regularity, when you are in the helpless deliciousness position of being about a third of the way into a new project.

The position is helpless because you cannot go any faster.  Sometimes, you cannot go at all, and so, instead of going forward, writing ahead, you write about the project, what you hope to learn from it, what you hope to put into it, perhaps even how this will help you move a plateau or two above where you are at the moment.

The position is delicious because, seeming sadist that you might well be, you are pappy to be a third into the present idea, so rooted in it that you find yourself having dreams about it in which you are solving problems you were not aware of in waking time.  

There is additional deliciousness in knowing the project will be useful to at least this audience of one which is you.  Yes, it is delicious because you are writing it for yourself, hopeful of being able to vault up a plateau or two toward having better control over the conversational sense of ease you hope to have with future projects.

By a mixture of accident and purpose, you've become yet another thing you'd never thought to become, a historian.  In similar ways to the other important accidents in your life, you had no idea that your eclectic tastes in fiction would take you anywhere close to being an historian.

Even when you were an English major, reading assignments off the course syllabi, you were keeping up with contemporary as well as becoming distracted by some of the non-assigned works from the assigned authors

Thus you real all of Tobias Smollet you could get your hands on, curious to see if you could learn something of the more conventional ways of narrative that you'd learned from reading an epistolary novel of his that, in effect, opened you to the exciting possibilities of multiple point of view (which well prepared you for Wilkie Collins's stunning The Moonstone to the point where you recognized him as a forerunner of a favored twentieth century mystery writer, Salvadore Lambino, aka Ed McBain).

All this one-step-forward, two or three to the sides approach caught up with you and you were not only able to understand point of view and the men and women who pioneered its evolution, you were able to see steps along the way, shifts, as it were, from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon to Homo Habilus, and so it goes.  Or went.

Here comes a digression in the form of Fowler's Modern English Usage, a comprehensive and witty guide to the use of words, tropes, memes, punctuation, and convention, a guide you were well aware of even before you became aware of the famed, iconic CMOS or Chicago Manual of Style, the preferential usage guide for most of the general trade books published in the U.S.

Somewhere along the way, you'd come across an Americanized version of the Fowler, edited by Margaret Nicholson.  Wonder of wonders, you still have it.  You not only used it to get you in and out of issues of clarity and meaning with your writing, you admired its dictionary-like format.  "Someday," you told yourself, when thinking how you'd like to write what was essentially a series of alphabetized essays, some quite long, some made even more witty by their brevity and edginess.  "Someday."  

In time, someday became today; you began writing such a book, which became The Fiction Writers' Handbook, a nonfiction format you admire because the segments are as long as you were able to make them, no longer nor shorter.  To be sure, your editor suggested deleting the occasional paragraph here, or adding one or two there.  The publisher went so far as to suggest at least two additional essays.

Now, there is this, wishing to gain admittance into the line of things already waiting to be done.  "This" is a list of one hundred novels which you believe most writers ought to have read.  Using them, you will demonstrate scenes, tools, techniques by which their remarkable authors achieved remarkable effects, causing them to be one hundred novels to be read, reread, and studied for hints of how they grew from notions and ideas such as "this" one, into the trustworthy treasure they have made themselves over the years since their appearance.